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Blu-ray Review: Seven Beauties

This is a stellar Blu-ray printing of what’s arguably Lina Wertmüller’s most internationally acclaimed film.

3.5

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Seven Beauties

Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties antagonizes us from the start of its opening montage of archival WWII footage, in which a narrator sardonically repeats the phrase “oh, yeah” throughout a series of political proclamations, all of them highlighting Europe’s inability to reconcile the cycles of violence and degradation that have plagued its nations throughout the 20th century. Confrontational and uncompromising, the narration instantly roots the film historically in the 1940s while also introducing Wertmüller’s irreverent reconciliation of Italian history and contemporary sexual politics.

The film is fundamentally absurd given its non-chronological, carnivalesque tale of Pasqualino (Giancarlo Giannini), a small-time Napoletano crook who’s convicted of murder and, after a series of unfortunate events, held prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. Wertmüller rebukes the sentimentality and nostalgia that fuels the narrative engine of Federico Fellini’s Amarcord by making the past into a refracted mirror of the present, so that no feeling or action can be easily explained, much less moralized as being right or wrong.

Wertmüller’s ambiguity exists to propel Pasqualino through society’s ringer. Not unlike Alex DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, he’s a ramshackle cad with a faulty ideology who uses the perceived abuse of his sister, Concettina (Elena Fiore), to take vengeance on a pimp (Mario Conti). Meaning to intimidate him, Pasqualino accidentally kills the man, dismembers him, and is thereafter sent to prison. Yet, Pasqualino is less a metaphorical punching bag for Wertmüller than a tool for her commentary on how even this man, in all of his faults and narcissism, must still be seen as a human being. In fact, Pasqualino becomes the face of Wertmüller’s multifaceted plea for compassion as he’s captured in Germany during WWII after joining the Italian army, sent to a concentration camp, and placed in the company of the camp’s commandant (Shirley Stoler), who he attempts to seduce to spare his own life.

Pasqualino at first exists as a figure plucked from a more straightforward period piece, whose dwelling within nightclubs and around the Naples countryside would be, in a more conventional film, the basis on which one might evaluate his subsequent salvation from such a wretched life of self-righteousness. Yet Wertmüller eliminates that possibility for neat character arcs by recognizing—even relishing—how much of a scoundrel Pasqualino is throughout the film as he remains the central figure of nearly every scene.

After he’s convicted of murder, Pasqualino sexually assaults a woman in the hospital so that he might be diagnosed as insane. The scene is played to amplify its sexual components, with close-ups of the woman’s breast and Pasqualino’s sweaty face. Here, Wertmüller risks being misunderstood as a voyeur because the scene is neither played for shock nor laughs; the camera stays uncomfortably close to the transgression. But in the end, Pasqualino’s sociopathic drive to save himself at the expense of all others’ protection and privacy is laid bare through his abuse, and his desperation is, in itself, what compels the film’s thematic core to confront his depravity.

Wertmüller’s screenplay thrives on the doubling of scenarios, so that the sexual assault becomes the pretext for Pasqualino’s later encounter with the commandant. In this instance, the roles have flipped, though Pasqualino still operates out of complete self-interest. As he approaches the large woman, who sits on a couch, legs spread, Wertmüller—through another uncanny use of close-up—reveals an emaciated, hunger-stricken man neither compelled by lust or power, only humiliation. It’s Pasqualino’s shame, after the film’s scrambled, rhythmic procession of events, that the film has been building to.

Bathed in neon green light, Pasqualino negotiates the lives of others to, once again, spare his own. Sex becomes a transaction and eroticism dies, especially as this sex act is, also once again, unblinking in its coverage of the pair’s entwined bodies. The image of such a deal being consummated is ultimately the greatest claim that Wertmüller makes in Seven Beauties: that nothing, whether sex, racism, violence, or politics, can be neatly disentangled from the other, because to talk about, or to show, one is to invoke them all.

Image/Sound

The high-definition image hasn’t been fully restored to eliminate all signs of damage to the negative. There are times where scratches will briefly appear, or sharpness will slightly waver, but color saturation is often vibrant and impressive. Close-ups are strong, especially in highlighting key details, like the sweat on Pasqualino’s face. Sound is good, if spotty, in its range and depth; the 2.0 DTS-HD mix could use another remastering to better balance dialogue and ambient noises. Still, these are altogether modest quibbles since the film looks and sounds better than it ever has on home video.

Extras

A 15-minute excerpt from the documentary Behind the White Glasses gives some useful context to understanding how Lina Wertmüller’s films became a stateside critical success, thanks in a big way to John Simon at New York magazine. The doc also briefly features Wertmüller herself, though given her infectious personality, fans will surely wish Kino had dug up at least a few more archival interviews to fill out the slate. The only other supplement of real note is an interview with Amy Heckerling, who says she thinks Seven Beauties is the best film ever made by a woman. Heckerling’s grounded analysis hits the film’s highlights by talking less about film form than story’s meaning and purpose. Rounding out the set is a trailer and a pair of essays by director Allison Anders and film historian Claudia Consolati.

Overall

Kino Lorber continues to release notable titles from Lina Wertmüller’s filmography in high-definition transfers with this stellar Blu-ray printing of what’s arguably her most internationally acclaimed film.

Cast: Giancarlo Giannini, Fernando Rey, Shirley Stoler, Elena Fiore, Mario Conti, Piero Di Iorio, Enzo Vitale Director: Lina Wertmüller Screenwriter: Lina Wertmüller Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 1975 Release Date: September 19, 2017 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Roy William Neill’s Black Angel Joins the Arrow Academy

Black Angel plumbs a world rife with deviousness, desperation, greed, and betrayal.

3.5

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Black Angel

Freely adapted from a novel by Cornell Woolrich, Black Angel portrays a world rife with deviousness, desperation, greed, and betrayal, where human affairs have value only as long as they keep paying dividends, and the forces of law and order, however well-intentioned, can do little more than turn up in the aftermath to pick up the jagged pieces. Its characters seem haunted by the consequences of their own worst instincts. Clocking in at barely 80 minutes, the film possesses a relentless forward momentum, courtesy of its “race against the clock” scenario, while also serving up a completely unsuspected twist in its last act.

When avaricious chanteuse Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) turns up dead, suspicion falls on the last man seen in her company, Kirk Bennett (John Phillips), who also happens to be a married man. Bennett is quickly caught, tried, and sentenced to death, in a sequence that’s punctuated by those familiar montages of blaring headlines and torn-off calendar pages. Convinced of her husband’s innocence, Catherine Bennett (June Vincent) enlists the aid of Mavis’s alcoholic former husband, Marty Blair (Dan Duryea), to help clear his name. As a tentative relationship blossoms between the two, evidence soon points to shady nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre). But the real killer turns out to be the one person you’d least expect, and who seems to have an ironclad alibi.

Director Roy William Neill, arguably best known for helming nine of the Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, brings a sense of consummate, if often unobtrusive, craftsmanship to Black Angel. Neill has an eye for balanced compositions and a penchant for sinuous, constantly roving camera movement. There’s a startling shot early in the film that cranes up past a street sign and across a fashionable hotel’s façade before alighting on a certain window—an effect that was apparently accomplished by constructing a miniature of the building. Marty Blair’s stay in a dipso ward seems like it could have been lifted straight out of Billy Wilder’s Lost Weekend, with the added bonus of a stylishly expressionistic flashback sequence that finally reveals what actually happened to Mavis Marlowe.

One of the many pleasures to be derived from classic Hollywood cinema is the way that any given film plays a game of theme and variation with a star’s public image. Dan Duryea, who had established his brand of slicked-back smarm in two Fritz Lang noir titles, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, plays a far more sympathetic character here. He may be down and out, but he’s valiantly struggling against his addictions and hopeful (almost despite himself) for the course of his new romance. Blair’s earnestness thus renders doubly tragic the film’s final revelations. And Peter Lorre, so memorable as the cowering, quailing child killer in Lang’s M, exudes a cosmopolitan charm and competence as Marko. Lorre also finds a vein of humor in the character, infusing a bizarre streak of sadomasochism in Marko’s relationship with his hulking henchman, the ironically named Lucky (Freddie Steele).

Image/Sound

Arrow presents a 2K transfer of Black Angel that’s derived from two different sources, which goes no doubt explains some of the variance on display when it comes to overall image brightness and fluctuations in grain level. Notwithstanding these intermittent irregularities, contrast levels are nicely balanced, blacks are deep and uncrushed, and the fine details of costume and décor stand out nicely. The LPCM mono track sounds great, with clean, clear dialogue, and a commendable presentation of Frank Skinner’s lovely score, as well as the handful of torch songs and other tunes performed throughout the film.

Extras

The commentary track from film scholar Alan K. Rode is jam-packed with thoroughly researched information (down to quoting memoirs and studio memoranda) about every aspect of the film’s production history. Rode is a fount of information concerning the careers of the crew and cast, all the way down to the bit players. Rode has a lot to say in particular about “Dangerous” Dan Duryea’s resolutely normal home life, which stood in stark contrast to his onscreen persona as the callow cad, a type he perfected in noir titles like Scarlet Street and Criss Cross. Rode also relays the intriguing tidbit that Duryea actually learned to play the piano pieces in the film, with June Vincent providing her own vocals. In an on-screen interview, film historian Neil Sinyard delivers his own reading of the film, fixes its place in the film noir pantheon, and makes a convincing argument that Duryea’s character serves as a biographical stand-in for author Cornell Woolrich.

Overall

Black Angel plumbs a world rife with deviousness, desperation, greed, and betrayal, and it gets a solid A/V transfer and set of extras from Arrow Films.

Cast: Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre, Broderick Crawford, Constance Dowling, Wallace Ford, Hobart Cavanaugh, Freddie Steele, John Phillips, Ben Bard, Junius Matthews, Marion Martin Director: Roy William Neill Screenwriter: Roy Chanslor Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 1946 Release Date: January 28, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind on the Criterion Collection

Criterion very ably honors the neurotic beauty of The Fugitive Kind, though new extras would’ve been appreciated.

4

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The Fugitive Kind

Tennessee Williams’s work thrives on risk, often striving for the rhythm and tenor of verse poetry, and at times collapsing into absurdity. His plays sometimes suggest film noirs that have been pumped up with the heightened fatalism of Greek tragedy, abounding in hothouse dialogue, literary symbolism (especially of the castration variety), domestic prison motifs, and frustrated women trapped between male captors and potential saviors. When one of his plays soar, like A Streetcar Named Desire, it feels as if the primordial manna of American working-class frustration has been unearthed and writ beautiful, and when one of them thuds, like Orpheus Descending, the floridness is ludicrous. Source material, then, is an issue dogging Sidney Lumet’s 1960 film The Fugitive Kind, an adaptation of Orpheus Descending that plays as a lesser imitation of Elia Kazan’s extraordinary film version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Written by Williams and co-screenwriter Meade Roberts, The Fugitive Kind is a story of broken people stewing in close quarters, wrestling with atrocities of the past. Appropriately in such a context, the film opens with a man in the midst of atonement. Valentine “Snakeskin” Xavier (Marlon Brando) explains to a judge in New Orleans his involvement in a bar fight. The judge is unseen, suggesting a priest who’s receiving Val’s confession. It’s evident that Brando is attempting to differentiate Val from his Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley is a brute wrestling with his impulses, a friction that Brando peerlessly dramatized, while Valentine suggests a former hell-raiser who’s achieved relative stability after great struggle. Val’s snakeskin jacket (later parodied in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart) is a promise of wildness that Val is no longer fulfilling, setting him up for damnation. The women of the Mississippi town that Val settles into want the man he used to be, while the town’s old codgers assume him to be a threat to their reign of racist terrorism.

The oft-referenced events in New Orleans sound more compelling than most of what happens on screen in The Fugitive Kind. The film makes its points and keeps making them, visually as well as verbally, feeling increasingly predigested by its creators, leaving the audience with little space to ruminate. Lumet and cinematographer Boris Kaufman conjure a black-and-white neo-expressionism that physicalizes the ghosts of the Mississippi town, favoring thick shadows that are punctuated with rays of light that expose buried truths and faces on the verge of confessions, and buildings are rife with latticework that serves as a readymade symbol of self-imprisonment. Lest we miss the point, there are speeches about drifting, about birds without legs who can’t land, and about our essential loneliness. Near the film’s climax, Val goes so far as to say, “We’re, all of us, sentenced to solitary confinement…for as long as we live on this Earth.” The cumulative effect of all this business is stultifying, as no moment here is allowed to simply breathe and exist, unburdened by arty signifiers. (Williams once said that the actors in this film were lit as if they were dipped in chocolate.)

Compared to the intense, ambiguous sexual neuroticism of A Streetcar Named Desire, the central conflict of The Fugitive Kind is pulp-fiction thin: Val starts working in the shop of an old man, Jabe (Victory Jory), who’s bedridden, a condition that forces his wife, Lady (Anna Magnani), to run the operation. Lady inevitably grows close to her new employee, who represents the passion she sacrificed many years earlier for the sake of stability, in the wake of dual tragedies. More or less, we’re waiting for the handyman to screw the bored housewife, though they keep debating the merit of going on with life or giving up, with Lady maddeningly repeating certain phrases for the sake of a poetic effect that grows maudlin.

The Fugitive Kind has vividly erotic moments, especially as Val talks Lady into hiring him at her shop, with the discussion becoming an extended double entendre. At this point in his career, Brando was an astonishing physical specimen, a statuesque hunk with the intellectual ennui of a philosopher, who moves with a panther-like ease that’s so pronounced that it’s even worked into the dialogue, and who speaks in a tenor that’s both tremulous and authoritative. (He’s the misfit we all want to be.) But Val is composed of nothing but Brando’s self-consciously simmering gestures, and the actor also indulges his propensity for fetishizing aloofness as his impression of averageness; even at the height of his powers, Brando’s tricks can be tedious. Magnani also has a robust physical intensity, but Lady’s prattling about her father’s destroyed wine garden does the actress no favors. (No one could save a line like “I had pride that summer they burned the wine garden of my father.”) In fact, everyone in this film is a type: Jabe and Sheriff Talbot (R.G. Armstrong) are superficial racist monsters, while Carol (Joanne Woodward) is a hoary cliché, the alcoholic as soul who’s too sensitive to stay sober.

The film has a strange pull nevertheless, as its powerful and embarrassing moments merge to offer a fever dream of an America, on the verge of the civil rights movement, that’s about to eat itself alive. There are pointedly no people of color in The Fugitive Kind, but the white characters divide over how to combat the legacy of American slavery, and Lady is particularly torn between liberation and oppression. This text is complemented by the gothic imagery, especially when Lady visits her father’s destroyed wine garden, a monument to dashed hope and personal as well as social fertility. Ultimately, there’s not quite a sense that Lumet has a take on this material, as The Fugitive Kind has nowhere near the drive of 12 Angry Men or his 1970s-era classics. Lumet prefers straight plotting uncluttered by symbols and fanciful allusions, and he eventually became a poet of the divide between procedure and chaos. In this film, he’s a dutiful student aware of the baggage he’s carrying.

Image/Sound

The image is beautiful, if occasionally inconsistent. Many sequences are crisp, with pristine black-and-white imagery, while others are softer, most notably in terms of the whites of close-ups of actors’ faces. This inconsistency intensifies the dreamlike spell of The Fugitive Kind, especially in certain unforgettable shots of Joanne Woodward’s character as she’s illuminated by the moonlight. Blacks are generally robust, even in the soft scenes, and there’s a remarkably subtle variation of whites, with an appealing level of grit that tethers this dream world somewhat to reality. The monaural soundtrack is clean and stable, offering a particularly heightened emphasis on the diegetic sound effects.

Extras

“Hollywood’s Tennessee and The Fugitive Kind” and the liner notes by critic David Thomson offer a concise and thoughtful exploration of Tennessee Williams’s rise as a playwright and his subsequent relationship with Hollywood. Williams is portrayed as a generous, if sometimes cantankerous, filmic collaborator who understood that cinema and theater were different disciplines and welcomed the input of his directors. (Williams even said that, while writing, he envisioned his plays unspooling in cinematic images.) In “Hollywood’s Tennessee,” scholar Robert Bray and film historian R. Barton Palmer also analyze The Fugitive Kind’s symbolism and its relationship with its source material, Orpheus Descending, which is complemented by an archive interview with Sidney Lumet from 2009 that vividly details the director’s working relationships with Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward, and Maureen Stapleton, and all the various juggling of egos and insecurities that process entailed.

The best supplement, though, is a collection of three one-act plays by Williams, directed by Lumet, which aired as a single program on TV in 1958, featuring actors such as Ben Gazzara and Lee Grant. These plays, early works of Williams’s, lack the overbaked poetry of Orpheus Descending, with blunt, searing, poignant dialogue and spare sets that evoke the claustrophobia of the characters. These plays aren’t trying so hard to live up to Williams’s legacy, and they embody his ability to render the ordinary ecstatic and uncanny. (One of the plays, featuring a sexually confident young girl, would be daring even today.) Only one regret: All of these supplements were available on the 2009 Criterion disc.

Overall

Criterion very ably honors the neurotic beauty of The Fugitive Kind, though new extras would’ve been appreciated.

Cast: Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward, Maureen Stapleton, Victor Jory, R.G. Armstrong, John Baragrey, Virgilia Chew, Sally Gracie, Ben Yaffee, Lucille Benson, Joe Brown Jr., Emory Richardson, Nell Harrison, Mary Perry, Madame Spivy, Janice Mars Director: Sidney Lumet Screenwriter: Tennessee Williams, Meade Roberts Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 1960 Release Date: January 14, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: William Wyler’s The Good Fairy on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

A key early work for both Wyler and screenwriter Preston Sturges gets a fantastic new transfer from Kino Lorber.

3.5

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The Good Fairy

Luisa Ginglebusher (Margaret Sullavan), an 18-year-old girl in pigtails who’s spent her entire childhood in an orphanage, is a vision of pure innocence. When a local businessman (Alan Hale) plucks her out of a lineup and offers her a job as an usherette at Budapest’s largest movie palace, the director of the orphanage (Beulah Bondi) sends her off with some parting advice: to remember to do a good deed every day. The older woman means to steer Luisa in the right direction, but the naïve young girl really takes those words of guidance to heart, resulting in a number of mix-ups and misunderstandings that force her to navigate the perilous traps of the modern world, particularly those stemming from men’s lustfulness.

William Wyler’s The Good Fairy, penned by Preston Sturges, boasts the quick wit that’s so typical of the screwball comedy, but also a sharply observed critique of predatory masculinity, which defines all but one of the numerous men who flock to the wide-eyed Luisa like moths to a flame. A hilarious early scene points to Luisa’s childlike conception of romantic love by showing her transfixed by a corny romantic melodrama playing at the movie palace, wherein an overly stilted actor repeatedly says “Go” as he attempts to throw his lover out of his house. But she has enough shrewdness to tell the men who harass her on the streets that she’s married—a little white lie that helps her get out of a jam on several occasions.

Wyler’s propensity for deep-focus shots is on memorable display in a scene that has Luisa training alongside a large group of usherettes in the movie palace and a later one in which she tries on a faux fox scarf and playfully models it for herself in front of a mise en abyme of mirrors. But more often than not, Wyler’s direction doesn’t call attention to itself, allowing Sturges’s droll, clever dialogue to take center stage as Luisa’s well-meaning fibs get her inextricably wrapped up in the lives of three men: Detlaff (Reginald Owen), an overprotective waiter who becomes her self-appointed guardian; Konrad (Frank Morgan), the wealthy, alcoholic meat magnate who treats Luisa similarly to the product that made him rich; and Dr. Sporum (Herbert Marshall), an unsuspecting lawyer who gets wrapped up in Luisa’s web of lies when she pulls his name out of the phone book and tells Konrad that he’s her husband.

The resulting chaos, involving multiple rivalries between the pompous men and a mostly passive Luisa—who, much of the time, just wants to be left alone—effectively cuts the blind idealism of her “good fairy” actions down to size, suggesting that good deeds are mostly wasted on mankind. In all but stripping Luisa of agency once she starts the marital farce in motion, The Good Fairy highlights the immense gap in power between the ingénue and the men who, despite their feigned attempts to appear as if they have her best interests at heart, bicker around her and pester her relentlessly despite her many protestations.

Due to limitations enforced by the Production Code, Sturges was forced to reimagine Ferenc Molnár’s risqué play, removing all references to Luisa’s sexual exploits and making her appear more innocent in her pursuit of goodness. But there’s still a heaping of innuendo and double entendre to suggest that she becomes learned in the art of manipulating the opposite sex. And while the snappiest dialogue belongs to Marshall, Morgan, and Owen, Sullavan subtly registers a knowing coyness that even the censors couldn’t snuff out from behind the marvelous façade of virginal purity that Luisa continues to put on long after she’s taken out her ponytails. It’s a frightening world of betrayal and indecency that Luisa has entered, but she eventually learns the lesson that you have to be at least a little bad to do some good.

Image/Sound

Sourced from a brand new 4K master, Kino’s transfer is fantastic across the board, boasting a remarkable sharpness, clarity, and depth. The contrast is also quite impressive, particularly in the deep, inky blacks, helping the picture to really pop. The healthy and even distribution of grain adds a nice, textured quality to the image, assuring the transfer never appears overly digitized. The audio is also nearly flawless, with the rapid dialogue and Heinz Roemheld’s lilting score remaining consistently crisp and clear, with only the occasional hints of tinniness.

Extras

The sole extra here is a charming and informative commentary by film critic and author Simon Abrams. His detailing of the myriad differences between Ferenc Molnár’s play and Preston Sturges’s script is comprehensive, as is his coverage of the effects that the relatively fresh implementation of the Hays Code had on the material’s more salacious qualities. On the lighter side, Abrams’s offers some backstage anecdotes from time to time, most notably the juicy nuggets about Margaret Sullavan’s diva-like on-set antics and her eventual marriage to William Wyler toward the end of production, after weeks of fighting with one another.

Overall

A key early work for both William Wyler and screenwriter Preston Sturges gets a fantastic new transfer from Kino Lorber.

Cast: Margaret Sullavan, Herbert Marshall, Frank Morgan, Reginald Owen, Eric Blore, Beulah Bondi, Alan Hale, Cesar Romero, Luis Alberni, June Clayworth Director: William Wyler Screenwriter: Preston Sturges Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 1935 Release Date: January 14, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat on the Criterion Collection

Godard’s bracing sophomore feature receives a wonderful hi-def transfer and a series of extras that contextualize its politics.

3.5

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Le Petit Soldat

The perception of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat as a sophomore slump derives less from its presumed shortcomings and more from two highly mitigating factors: the mighty shadow cast by Godard’s seminal debut feature, Breathless, and the fact that it didn’t even see the light of day until three years after its making. The French government banned its exhibition due to its contentious subject matter, which depicted scenes of torture and painted an unsavory picture of the French armed forces in their conflict with the Algerian National Liberation Front.

Yet in many ways, Le Petit Soldat is equal to Breathless in its inventiveness and exuberance. A sort of political thriller—in the same nominal, oblique way that Breathless is a gangster film—Godard’s sophomore feature tells the story of Bruno (Michel Subor), a French photojournalist living in Geneva so that he may avoid enlistment. After refusing to assassinate a French FLN sympathizer, the French intelligence group with which he’s affiliated suspects him of being a double agent, complicating his infatuation with his newfound love, Veronica (Anna Karina), who has political ties of her own.

Despite their contrasting subjects, Breathless and Le Petit Soldat share many thematic and stylistic similarities, attributed to their Sartrean influence and Godard’s infatuation with cinema as the great conduit of human emotion. Flying in the face of Le Petit Soldat’s grave subject matter are distinctly Hollywood-esque notions of passion, intrigue, morality, and even mortality. Also hovering over every second of the action is a sense of betrayal, both political and romantic. In the film, Godard depicts love and betrayal as two sides of the same coin, as he did in Breathless and would continue to do throughout his career.

Working again with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, Godard achieves a naturalistic, improvisational style, filming in bustling city streets. Less instinctual, though, is the editing, as Godard sought to capture a weightier, more mature tone. Compared to Breathless, Le Petit Soldat’s images suggest a stronger sense of place, as characters seem inextricably linked to their environment. Overall, the film lacks the artifice of Hollywood cinema, which Godard admired but was looking to move past after catching flack from the French left wing.

In the early days of the Nouvelle Vague, as Godard and his compatriots at Cahiers du Cinéma garnered international acclaim for their brand of idiosyncratic filmmaking, members of the left accused them of making films about private and therefore apolitical matters, a reasonable albeit needling denigration that sparked Le Petit Soldat’s production. Keen to counter this criticism, Godard, with a sort of brash impudence, set his sights on the most controversial political subjects of the day: Algeria’s fight for independence, France’s reluctance to grant them such, and both side’s use of torture to extract information from the opposition—all of this in spite of the fact that he had no real intention of tackling these subjects head on.

The film emerged in the midst of a political sea change for Godard, who considered the left’s rigorous, politicized aesthetic demands constraining, yet conversely found much to dislike in the right’s proto-fascist treatment of the Algerian conflict. Though he abstained from political overtones in Breathless, things had reached a point where a nonpolitical stance was chancy, prompting Godard to wade into the conversation in the way he knew best: through cinema. And in virtually every sense, Le Petit Soldat is Godard’s attempt to make an inherently contentious film despite his uncertain political stance in relation to the subject.

For Godard, political engagement was a deeply personal practice, an innately existential concept with no real relation to external circumstances. As such, the film can be read as his personal reconciliation with the Algerian War, the process with which he used to reach a political conclusion by landing on the left—and that rare occurrence in cinema when action is infused with thought, and when the very nature of thought comes to life on screen.

Image/Sound

For Le Petit Soldat, cinematographer Raoul Coutard worked with natural and available light, which resulted in images of variable clarity, yet the Criterion Collection’s transfer counters that by maximizing contrast and texture. Outdoor scenes feature slight fluctuations of detail endemic to the film’s source material, though for the most part the image remains stable and looks surprisingly good in night scenes, which sport healthy grain but no crushing artifacts. Indoor scenes are richly textured and display a wide variety of sharply contrasted grays. The film’s contrapuntal audio is even crisper, showing off the remarkable range of sound elements that Jean-Luc Godard was readily capturing so early into his career.

Extras

A 1965 interview with Godard finds him reflecting on the film’s hostile reception even among left-wing publications, as well as the inspiration he takes from real-world events. A 1963 interview with Michel Subor focuses on his collaborations with Godard and how the actor admires the filmmaker’s quirks and challenging personality. Also included is a 1961 audio interview with Godard that emphasizes the popularity he enjoyed after the release of Breathless. Finally, an essay by critic Nicholas Elliott considers how Le Petit Soldat kickstarted Godard’s career-defining preoccupation with all things political.

Overall

Godard’s bracing sophomore feature receives a wonderful hi-def transfer from Criterion and a series of extras that contextualize its controversial politics.

Cast: Michel Subor, Anna Karina, Henri-Jacques Huet, Paul Beauvais, Georges de Beauregard, László Szabó, Jean-Luc Godard Director: Jean-Luc Godard Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 1963 Release Date: January 21, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: House by the Cemetery Receives 3-Disc Limited Edition Blu-ray

The House by the Cemetery remains prime real estate for horror film aficionados.

5

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House by the Cemetery

Several generations of fanboys have heralded Lucio Fulci as “the Godfather of Gore” (pace Herschell Gordon Lewis), and there’s splatter aplenty on display in The House by the Cemetery, from the opening murder set piece (a knife to the back of the skull that emerges from the victim’s mouth) to the penultimate killing (a major character gets their throat torn out). But it would be grossly reductive, not to mention flat-out wrong, to dismiss the film as mere gore-delivery system.

As with previous entries in the loosely linked “Gates of Hell” trilogy (City of the Living Dead and The Beyond), with their concern for the all-too-porous boundaries between the living and the dead, Fulci refracts influences both cinematic (The Amityville Horror and The Shining) and literary (Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and any number of Gothic-inflected haunted-house tales) through the lens of his own darkly poetic sensibility. Fulci and his co-writers betray a fondness for the ambiguous and open-ended. None of the “Gates of Hell” films conclude with the restoration of moral or, indeed, cosmic order found in more conventional (read: conservative) horror films, and The House by the Cemetery’s haunting finale suggests, in the words of co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, that life is an ode to death as savior.

The setup is properly archetypal: New Yorkers Lucy and Norman Boyle (Fulci regulars Catriona MacColl and Paolo Malco), along with their young son, Bob (Giovanni Frezza), move to New Whitby, outside of Boston, so that Norman can continue the research of his colleague, Dr. Petersen, who not long before murdered his lover and then killed himself in the same “old, dark house” that the Boyles are now renting. The film, though, isn’t without a sly sense of humor. Witness the name of its monstrous mad doctor: Freudstein. The “mad doctor” epithet elucidates the cognomen’s latter component, but the Freudian aspects within the film are more manifold. Naturally enough, a free-floating feeling of the uncanny permeates the film, as in the numerous instances of déjà vu when the residents of New Whitby believe Norman has been there before, and surrounds the figure of Ann (Ania Pieroni), Bob’s eerie babysitter.

Then, too, there’s Freud’s suggestion that the uncanny (“un-home-ly”) is the opposite of the domestic, the familiar (in several senses) rendered unfamiliar, and therefore akin on the level of aesthetics to the formalist principle of defamiliarization. In The House by the Cemetery, the nearby graves quite literally invade the home, when Lucy discovers the headstone for the Freudstein crypt in the middle of their living room. At film’s end, when Bob escapes from the cellar through a rather vaginal-looking crack in the tombstone, the moment is a kind of rebirth, into the gray and wintry realms of the undead. By the same token, the monster inhabiting the cellar embodies the return of the repressed, whatever has been shoved deep down into the depths of the unconscious—here, quite possibly, Bob’s anger and resentment toward inattentive, even neglectful parents.

Fulci also accomplishes the act of rendering things unfamiliar throughout his dreamlike film by disavowing the linear mechanics of narrative logic. Inattentive viewers have always complained that Fulci’s infernal trilogy are incoherent texts, filled with dangling plot threads and unexplained leaps of logical faith, which indeed they are. Putting that down to rank incompetence, though, would be to mistake technique as the lack thereof and consistently misconstrue the sense of the playful and surreal that runs through even Fulci’s most graphic and brutal films, whether the Donald Duck-voiced killer in his grindhouse post mortem that is The New York Ripper, or the self-reflexive mise en abyme of The Cat in the Brain, wherein Fulci plays himself as a maestro of the macabre trapped within an endless nightmare constructed from cut-and-pasted gore scenes drawn from his lesser-known films.

Nor is Fulci above bits of self-aware parody that stick it to the conventions of Gothic horror, a sensibility that’s best evidenced here in the amusingly protracted bat-killing scene: Norman repeatedly stabs the flying rodent latched onto his hand with a steak knife until what seems like gallons of syrupy blood gush out, which Fulci follows with a smash cut to a smarmy realtor, glimpsed in an earlier scene, yawning in boredom.

The House by the Cemetery concludes with a quote allegedly drawn from the works of Henry James: “No one will ever know whether children are monsters or monsters are children.” It’s a false attribution, naturally, but one that nevertheless keys into the film’s layers of Jamesian ambiguity, of the “Is it real or all in your head?” variety, and invites comparison to Jack Clayton’s excellent film adaptation of James’s most famous story, The Innocents. Though Clayton’s film epitomizes the restraint and suggestiveness of the best psychological horror films, seemingly at antipodes to Fulci’s full-frontal assault of explicitness, both films have the capacity to burrow under your skin and plumb deep into your unconscious.

Image/Sound

Blue Underground’s 4K upgrade of their 2011 Blu-ray marks another quantum leap in presenting cinematographer Sergio Salvati’s stunningly atmospheric work: Black levels are truly deep and tenebrous throughout, without a trace of murky blocking or crush. The already impressive clarity and color saturation get a further boost, with plenty of heretofore illegible details (like food labels and signage) clearly standing out. And the brightness of those rainbow-hued stained-glass windows in the Boyle home will practically make you squint. There are three audio options: Master Audio mono tracks in English and Italian, as well as a repurposed English 5.1 surround mix, which does a discreet but admirable job of separating and channelizing Walter Rizzati’s synth-organ score, as well as ambient sound effects like Freudstein’s piteous mewling and that bizarre recurrent wolf call. And there’s always the Italian track if you’re one of those viewers whose bane of existence is the shrill, vapid voice provided by whoever supplied the voice for flaxen-haired moppet Bob Boyle.

Extras

The bounteous extras, both old and new, are spread across two Blu-ray discs, with Blue Underground porting over all the bonus materials from their earlier release of the film. Most of the lead actors get their own brief interview featurette, either alone or in tandem, as do husband-and-wife co-writers Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti, as well as Salvati and a handful of special effects artists. They’re all listenable and informative, especially the interview with Briganti and Sacchetti. And the deleted scene is an extension of the bat-killing sequence, presented without any audio, and it adds precious little to the festivities.

For this limited edition, Blue Underground has inclued four major new supplements, including a predictably lively, informative, and often colorfully opinionated commentary track by Troy Howarth. The film historian makes a persuasive argument for The House by the Cemetery’s “poetic” qualities, especially when it comes to Fulci’s dynamic use of the 2.35:1 frame. In a Q&A from 2014 at the Spaghetti Cinema Film Festival, actress Catriona MacColl fields questions about her career, working with Fulci, and the afterlife of his films. Co-writer Giorgio Mariuzzo discusses his working relationship with Fulci. And author Stephen Thrower delves into the literary and cinematic influences on The House by the Cemetery, its place within Fulci’s filmography, and examines the shooting locations (with some enjoyable then-and-now snapshots). But the extras don’t stop there. Blue Underground truly pimp out their packaging with a 3D lenticular slipcase, an illustrated booklet with essay by Michael Gingold on the film and its legacy, and a CD disc that contains the entire Walter Rizzati score.

Overall

The House by the Cemetery remains prime real estate for horror film aficionados.

Cast: Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Ania Pieroni, Giovanni Frezza, Silvia Collatina, Dagmar Lassander, Carlo De Mejo, Lucio Fulci Director: Lucio Fulci Screenwriter: Dardano Sacchetti, Giorgio Mariuzzo, Lucio Fulci Distributor: Blue Underground Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 1981 Release Date: January 21, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Rian Johnson’s Neo-Noir Breakout Brick on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Johnson’s debut feature receives an excellent home-video package from Kino.

3.5

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Brick

Rian Johnson’s Brick places the hard-boiled pulp of noir into the mouths of first-wave millennials. The genre’s contradictory blend of laconicism and loquacity proves to be easily transposed to bright but aimless teenagers of the early aughts; a generation pumped full of antidepressants and amphetamines from childhood, these high schoolers add a narcotized, chemically addled variation of noir’s naturally numbed emotional tenor. The hero, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), could be called precocious if he weren’t so detached, as if Max Fischer got so deep into one of his fabricated roles that he got lost in it. Yet beneath his façade of hyper-cool right out of a Dashiell Hammett novel is a scared, baffled young man struggling to deal with the death of his drug-addicted ex, Emily (Emilie de Ravin).

The film presents its Orange County high school setting as a cesspit of vice in which a host of addicted teens are manipulated by a group of popular kids and dope pushers. And right away it makes clear that one of Johnson’s great strengths is his keen ear for replicating the beats and intonations of classic pulp detective fiction. Cornered by a group of ne’er-do-wells, Brendan feistily spits, “Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you.” Supporting characters speak such dialogue with a hard edge reflective of their types—femme fatale, stool pigeon, local hood—but Gordon-Levitt locates the pain simmering under the surface of Brendan’s flippant hostility, imbuing it with the confused pain of a young man dealing with death for the first time.

At its best, Johnson’s direction plays up noir tropes while reflecting that underlying pathos, as when he captures theater nerd and designated femme fatale Laura (Norah Zehetner), dressed in a bright red cheongsam that stands in sharp contrast to the more muted clothes of her peers, lit to seem like the only person in the room as Brendan stares at her. Likewise, later encounters with a heroin kingpin (Lukas Haas) find a perfect balance of the intimidating and farcical, regularly blanketing the young man in shadow while also undercutting his menace with a bright, static scene at his family table as his mom (Reedy Gibbs) serves him cookies.

Elsewhere, though, the showy tics that would go on to define Johnson’s early work can occasionally grate. Close-ups on various objects—a pair of shoes, a cigarette tossed out of a car onto asphalt—imbue the quotidian with menace, but to redundant effect. Likewise, in-camera effects garishly disrupt Brick’s measured pace with sudden, dissonant outbursts of violence that feel too self-consciously cool compared to the largely detached tenor of the film. Johnson would keep this overactive approach all the way through guest slots helming episodes of Breaking Bad, and to revisit Brick in the wake of his less antic, more cohesively stylized work on films like Looper and Knives Out is to see just how much he’s matured as a filmmaker.

Brick, in some ways, recalls the first films of Christopher Nolan, who likewise emerged as a maker of filmic puzzles and noir mystery updated for the 21st century. But where Nolan prefers to spring his surprises by withholding information, often to the point of narrative incoherence, Johnson likes to give sharp viewers enough clues for them to solve the case before the end. And for all the film’s literary brio and technical pizzazz, Brick shows a keen interest in character that always shines through the style, and an empathy for even the most debased of the blank-faced, directionless people who surround Brendan.

Image/Sound

Steve Yedlin’s cinematography mixes muted, naturalistic tones with sudden bursts of expressionistic color, and Kino’s Blu-ray superbly captures this contrast. Brendan’s sallow, shut-in complexion is so textured that it’s impossible to miss the physical toll his obsession takes on him, while bits of color like Laura’s dress and the bright colors of the theater kids’ dressing room pop from the tans and off-whites that surround it. The shadows that shroud the film’s second half are rendered with no visible crushing, and black levels are consistent throughout. The disc comes with audio in lossless 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround. Both mixes are crisp and well balanced, with the surround mix conjuring a more paranoid tone in its distribution of ambient effects across all channels.

Extras

Kino’s disc comes with an audio commentary with Rian Johnson, actors Nora Zehetner and Noah Segan, producer Ram Bergman, production designer Jodie Tillen, and costume designer Michele Posch. Johnson offers the most consistent insights into the film, detailing his inspirations, writing and shooting methods, and more. By moderating the rotating guests on the track, he’s able to prevent overlap in their input. Johnson also introduces a collection of eight deleted and extended scenes. By his own admission, little was fully excised from the film, so most of the 20 minutes of footage consists of scenes in the final cut that last far longer, often adding little more than additional mood at the expense of the final cut’s pacing. Finally, footage from Zehetner and Segan’s audition tapes are included.

Overall

Rian Johnson’s debut feature receives an excellent home-video package from Kino, with a great A/V transfer that highlights the filmmaker’s aesthetic skills.

Cast: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss, Matt O’Leary, Meagan Good, Emilie de Ravin Director: Rian Johnson Screenwriter: Rian Johnson Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2005 Release Date: January 7, 2020 Buy: Video

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Sergio Corbucci’s The Hellbenders and The Specialists on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Corbucci’s portraits of bloodlust and insatiable cravings for money cut to the core of the true American frontier values.

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The Specialists
Photo: Kino Lorber

The landscapes of Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti westerns—be they the isolating, snow-swept mountains of The Great Silence or the arid, dusty terrains of Django, The Hellbenders, and The Specialists—serve as brutally expressionistic backdrops to an Old West where concepts like justice, honor, and community are the things of folk tales. Greed and vengeance are the governing forces in these unforgiving cinematic worlds, where loyalty only goes as far as a dollar has bought it. Even the sanctity of the dead isn’t honored, with coffins serving as camouflage for Gatling guns in Django and a safeguard for counterfeit money in The Hellbenders. Corbucci’s vision of the West is a Darwinian hellscape of dog-eat-dog maneuvers, double crosses, and ruthless displays of violence. If his films border on nihilistic, it’s only because the Italian director’s portraits of bloodlust and insatiable cravings for money cut to the core of the true American frontier values that still reverberate in our culture today.

Early in The Hellbenders, Joseph Cotten’s Colonel Jonas, a Confederate soldier looking to fund a reboot of the just-ended Civil War, and four of his loyal soldiers murder an entire battalion of Union soldiers carrying half a million dollars that’s to be destroyed before new money can be printed. Following the slaughter, Jonas coolly walks up to his men, shoots the two who aren’t his blood relatives, and, with a fistful of bloody cash in his hand, gleefully states, “A fresh start, boys, a fresh start.” The myth of the West is typically propagated by tales of redemption, ingenuity, justice, and hard work, but Corbucci subverts that myth by presenting the notion of the “fresh start” offered by the American frontier as one which necessarily courts violence, greed, and theft. Money and land are the currencies in the land of opportunity and no amount of integrity and diligence can do as much to help get your hands on either as a bullet.

If family appears to be the sole unifying force in The Hellbenders, even that’s only for a spell, as there’s power in numbers when trying to navigate a coffin full of stolen cash through enemy territory. Where the coffin that Django’s protagonist drags around is cracked open to literally unleash a furious flurry of bullets, the one escorted by Jonas and his sons (Julian Mateos, Gino Pernice, and Angel Aranda) in this film more insidiously cultivates violence through temptation, as its contents warp the minds of everyone who remains in its orbit. Money is the inexorable temptress, more pernicious than the devil himself. Late in the film, a drifter, responding to the question of where he’s from, says “From under a rock. That’s where they say we all begin, crawling out from underneath something.” Corbucci’s view of mankind is one where the rock has just been lifted and all the horrifying instincts of humanity are revealed.

The Specialists opens on a similar image of debasement, with a group of Mexican raiders throwing four men into a pit of mud followed by a dollar coin, with whoever retrieves the dollar remaining the sole survivor. In rides a mysterious man in black, Hud (Johnny Hallyday), to save the day, but as soon as the bandits are run out of Blackstone, we learn that the supposed hero isn’t welcome here either, as his brother was recently lynched for robbing the town’s bank. This time around, money isn’t in a coffin, but buried somewhere in Blackstone, yet its very presence has the same destabilizing effect on all of the townspeople.

Signifiers of civilized behavior abound in The Specialists, from the town’s pacifist Sheriff Gedeon (Gastone Moschin) and seemingly upstanding banker, Virginia (Françoise Fabian). And along with the return of their stolen money, even the townsfolk seem to only want law and order. But while Hud and a one-armed Mexican bandit, El Diablo (Mario Adorf), appear as the likely villains, greed spreads like an airborne disease throughout the film, ultimately infecting the whole town with a callous sense of self-preservation.

As Corbucci masterfully navigates through a series of double-crosses, he strips away his characters’ veneers of civility, tolerance, and virtuousness to reveal the nasty impulses lurking beneath. When the filmmaker shows a group of proto-hippies forcing all of Blackstone’s citizens to strip at gunpoint and crawl in the dirt, it’s a stark condemnation not only of American greed and opportunism, but of the ways those evil, barbarous inclinations are often deceitfully couched in supposed pursuits of peace, justice, and social order.

Sergio Corbucci’s The Hellbenders and The Specialists are now available on Blu-ray.

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Review: Fritz Lang’s House by the River on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

The film is a fascinating, bewitching, and hitherto largely neglected entry in Lang’s canon.

3.5

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House by the River

“I hate this river,” says the nosy Mrs. Ambrose (Ann Shoemaker) as the tide of the water circles “that filth” (the carcass of a dead cow, it seems) around her house for what is probably the umpteenth time, to which her next-door neighbor, frustrated writer Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward), replies, “It’s people who should be blamed for the filth, not the river.” And with that Fritz Lang and screenwriter Mel Dinelli neatly unpack House by the River’s theme of moral responsibility a mere three minutes into the picture. This hand-holding is widespread in many of Lang’s later work (The Blue Gardenia and Clash by Night being the most egregious examples), but it’s the sort of thing that’s easily absolved given the many fascinating ways the filmmaker visually extended his themes.

Made in 1949 for Republic Pictures, House by the River not only shows its modest origins but the frustration of its maker. Lang wanted to cast a black woman in the role of Emily Gaunt (the part eventually went to Dorothy Patrick), the maid that Hayward’s character accidentally kills mere moments after trying to seduce her, but the suits at Republic recoiled at the idea. Ironically, the very fear of miscegenation that the director wanted to address—call it the elephant in America’s living room (or the one floating around its house)—frustrated his ambitions. Unable to subversively work a critique of America’s racial problems into the film’s fabric as he had done for Fury, Lang had to settle for building House by the River’s routine melodrama into a snappy commentary on moral depravity and eye-for-an-eye retribution.

Stephen convinces his brother, John (Lee Bowman), to help him dump Emily’s body in the river outside his home. The man’s relief that his indiscretions—adultery and murder—appear as if they’ll go unpunished considerably strokes his ego, to the point that he begins to channel the whole affair into his latest unpublished novel. (Early in the film, Mrs. Ambrose advises that he make his stories “racy” and, later, some woman makes an off-the-cuff comment about writers doing their best work when they channel the truth.) But when Emily’s body floats to the surface and begins to circle the house that Stephen shares with his wife, Marjorie (Jane Wyatt), it’s not just the plot of his novel that thickens. It’s here that his moral crisis begins to take on new angles. The film’s 88 minutes aren’t nearly enough to sufficiently flesh them all out, or connect them in a truly meaningful way, but Lang’s visuals pick up some of the slack.

Lang too often tries to belie his low budget, which usually exposes his sham (he grafts what sounds like audio from a 100-person reception onto a nine-person party scene), and though he’s unable to give the logic by which the titular river circulates around Steven and Mrs. Ambrose’s house a truly expressive visual justification, it doesn’t matter given how splendidly he equates the river to a floating id of primitive, unconscious fears and desires. The director’s chiaroscuro imagery sinisterly evokes Stephen’s bourgeoning madness, from the parallels between Marjorie and Emily’s entrances in the film to the maddening links between Emily’s hair as it swivels in the water and the curtains inside Stephen and Marjorie’s house. Stephen gets his due, and when he does, Lang evokes it as a case of beyond-the-grave retribution. Mrs. Ambrose might say, “What comes around, goes around.”

Image/Sound

Kino Lorber’s 2K restoration significantly improves on their previous DVD in terms of clarity, depth, and contrast. There’s still a bit of murky flicker noticeable in some of the darker scenes, but, on the plus side, there’s also more information visible on all four edges of the frame throughout. The two-channel Master Audio mono mix cleanly delivers the dialogue and gives a resonant boost to George Antheil’s moody score.

Extras

The big new extra here is a commentary track from film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who begins by addressing the nature of Stephen’s assault on Emily, the film’s complicated take on sexual politics and sexual violence, and how it fits into the larger discourse of “rape culture.” She also delves into the film’s formal and thematic links to Fritz Lang’s larger body of work, and the ways in which House by the River straddles the borderline between noir and Gothic melodrama. There’s also an interview from 2005 with producer and film historian Pierre Rissient, who was largely responsible for resuscitating interest in House by the River, one of Lang’s lesser-known and at the time unavailable films. He describes hearing Lang verbally recreate the first 10 minutes of the film practically shot for shot, the effect it had on French New Wave filmmakers like Claude Chabrol, and the interesting connection he made when he finally tracked down the source material’s author in his Thames-side home.

Overall

Now looking better than ever, House by the River is a fascinating, bewitching, and hitherto largely neglected entry in Fritz Lang’s filmography.

Cast: Louis Hayward, Jane Wyatt, Lee Bowman, Dorothy Patrick, Ann Shoemaker, Jody Gilbert, Peter Brocco, Howland Chamberlain Director: Fritz Lang Screenwriter: Mel Dinelli Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 1950 Release Date: January 14, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China on Shout! Blu-ray

The cast and crew interviews are the star of this disc, elaborating on the making of a misunderstood cult classic.

4

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Big Trouble in Little China

John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China is a relative outlier in the director’s poetically bleak filmography, a martial-arts adventure slash monster-comedy extravaganza that suggests an Indiana Jones movie that’s been mounted on a more intimate scale. Look deeper, though, and Big Trouble in Little China recalls the spirit of the work of Carpenter’s beloved Howard Hawks (who made the similarly uncharacteristic Land of the Pharaohs) in its obsession with a team unity that eclipses the efforts of any singular individual. Indiana Jones may have touches of erudition and the help of friends, but he’s unquestionably the man of action at any given moment, while this film’s Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is more of a wannabe, a truck driver with a John Wayne bluster who talks tough and has authentic courage, while having no clue what he’s doing.

An early scene in Big Trouble in Little China is perhaps purposefully misleading. Jack is in San Francisco’s Chinatown playing pai gow with a group of Chinese-Americans. Jack wins and takes their money, suggesting that he will be the cocksure American of the movies who’s at ease wherever he goes, besting people at their own rituals. This a warm and funny—read: Hawksian—scene in which we’re allowed to revel in the somewhat contentious energy of these men. One of the Chinese-Americans is something of a friend of Jack’s, Wang (Dennis Dun), who loses big to him in a double-or-nothing gambit. Then, Wang and Jack are swept into a bizarre quest in which the American is nearly rendered the sidekick, forcing him to get by mostly on nerve. The film is both a celebration and parody of macho American ego.

It’s amazing how loose and charming a screen adventure can be when filmmakers are willing to play around and deflate a hero’s pomposity, even if they ultimately enjoy it. Accompanying Wang to the airport, still hoping to get his money, Jack hits on a gorgeous woman, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), and is promptly shot down for being drunk. When Chinese gangsters kidnap Wang’s fiancée, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), at the airport, Jack faces the gangsters and gets his ass kicked (though he is out-armed and outnumbered). Later, a wise and benevolent old sorcerer, Egg Shen (Victor Wong), delivers a bunch of exposition about Chinese black magic and the legacy of a demon named Lo Pan (James Hong), Jack says he feels like an outsider and everyone, especially Gracie, agrees. Eventually, Jack fires a machine gun into the air, finally feeling in his element, and sends a part of the ceiling crashing down on his head. And so on.

W.D. Richter’s screenplay abounds in clever one-liners that Carpenter skillfully under-emphasizes, while Russell, who’s played many un-ironic action heroes, embraces Jack’s foolishness with a lovely and graceful sense of abandon. In other words, Carpenter has it both ways: Jack is never more dashing than when crossing the master threshold of idiocy.

At the time of its release, critics complained that Big Trouble in Little China was neither an adventure, a comedy, nor a horror film, and that its characters were merely types, which is very much the point here. The stakes of the quest to rescue Miao Yin and Gracie from Lo Pan’s clutches are never high, as Carpenter is more interested in mounting a free-floating hang-out comedy that casually borrows from many genres, effectively announcing his ability to do whatever he pleases—a cocky sensibility that would influence future genre mix-masters.

Big Trouble in Little China often suggests a feature-length version of those idle moments in Hawks’s adventures, such as when Ricky Nelson’s character sang a song in Rio Bravo, only with the flippancy turned way up. The monsters and special effects are charmingly jokey—far more charming than those of Ivan Reitman’s similarly spirited Ghostbusters—and Carpenter’s beautiful widescreen compositions often liken the creatures to those of a spooky amusement-park ride, banishing them to nooks and crannies that presumably hide their puppeteers. Meanwhile, the martial-arts battles are funny, poignant, and concise, as Carpenter emphasizes singular gestures, such as an air-born swordfight, allowing them to cumulatively suggest stanzas in a poem. In its sense of controlled chaos, Big Trouble in Little China distinguishes itself from the figurative madness of the films of, say, Tsui Hark.

Despite the half-drunk, what-the-hell atmosphere, the humans in Big Trouble in Little China do register, which prevents this film from being as meaningless as genre pastiche-parodies like Stephen Sommers’s Mummy installments. Russell, with his gloriously cuckoo timing and absurd tank top, is the center of the narrative, but Dun, Cattrall, Pai, Li, and Wong have a poignant agency as well as an intergroup chemistry, and Hong wisely plays his role straight as a counterpoint to Russell. Lo Pan is an authentically elegant and frightening villain, whether mocking the heroes as an old man or hovering malevolently through his subterranean lair as an albino phantom warrior. And his exit, cleverly foreshadowed by an early scene between Jack and Wang, is both jolting and amusing, which is essentially this strange lark in a nutshell.

Image/Sound

The image here has a painterly quality that’s in keeping with John Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey’s intentions. Colors have a soft, almost watercolor quality and occasionally explode off the screen, such as the reds and greens of the various tiers of Lo Pan’s subterranean lair. Facial textures are quite detailed, such as the make-up for Kim Cattrall’s character when she’s fashioned as a bride for Lo Pan. There are two soundtracks: a 5.1 and 2.0. The mixes are clear but occasionally sound a little flat in terms of diegetic effects, though the score is robust and nuanced, allowing Carpenter’s fans to savor his synth collaboration with Alan Howarth. Overall, this is an appealing transfer, but it doesn’t quite feel definitive.

Extras

The new interviews are the highlight of this loaded supplements package, and they follow two overlapping thematic strands. On one hand, the interviews with virtually every person involved on Big Trouble in Little China offer a relatively full portrait of the film’s making (notably missing are the female actors), detailing how Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein’s original period western script was revised by co-screenwriter W.D. Richter to take place in the present day, and how Carpenter eventually took on directing duties, hiring friends and former collaborators such as Kurt Russell, second-unit director Tommy Lee Wallace, and Nick Castle, who played Michael Meyers in Halloween and helped perform with Carpenter and Wallace the theme song for Big Trouble in Little China.

Throughout these interviews, Carpenter is portrayed as a low-key man of many talents who knows how to command a set, and who feels the film’s comedy was misunderstood by the studio and initially the audience alike. The other strand, more poignantly, details the working experiences of the Asian actors in the cast, including Dennis Dun, James Hong, Donald Li, and Peter Kwong, who offer similar stories of combating Hollywood stereotypes and turning to acting as children as a way to fit into a Caucasian society.

There are also three audio commentaries, an archive one with Russell and Carpenter that’s a good informal listen, and two new tracks with producer Larry Franco and special effects artist Steve Johnson, respectively, that offer even more context on the film’s creation. All sorts of other goodies round out a superb set, including photo galleries, stills galleries, and a feature on the film’s various posters and lobby cards. This package is a treasure trove for fans of Big Trouble in Little China, especially for Carpenter acolytes.

Overall

The cast and crew interviews are the star of this Shout! Factory disc, elaborating on the making of a misunderstood cult classic.

Cast: Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun, Kim Cattrall, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton, Donald Li, Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, Suzee Pai, Chao Li Chi, James Pax, Jeff Imada, Craig Ng Director: John Carpenter Screenwriter: Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein, W.D. Richter Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 1986 Release Date: December 3, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World on Criterion Blu-ray

The film remains a hypnotic yet foreboding look at how the proliferation of images and media technology affect the mind.

4

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Until the End of the World

Wim Wenders’s 287-minute sci-fi adventure Until the End of the World has the peculiar quality of being simultaneously elliptical and meticulously plotted. Though the 1991 film features no shortage of contemplative shots of futuristic vistas, both real and virtual, and exhibits an aversion to easy action-flick thrills, the narrative has all the intricacy one would expect of a cyberpunkian tale about the chase for stolen, mind-altering technology. Despite the story’s novelistic girth, most scenes wind up being indispensable both to the plot and to the film’s portrait of a specific, detailed milieu. Which is to say that the whole is akin to a good novel—a comparison that Wenders would likely appreciate, given that his prescient allegory of the postmodern condition ends up, somewhat paradoxically, propounding the virtues of words over images.

The pronouncement in favor of written language is uttered in Until the End of the World by the narrator character, Eugene (Sam Neill), as a kind of conclusion, after he’s witnessed the abyssal attraction that the digital image holds for his ex-girlfriend, Claire (Solveig Dommartin, who co-authored the film’s story), and the new object of her affection, Sam (William Hurt). Enthralled by a head-mounted camera invented by Sam’s father (Max von Sydow) that can read brainwaves—and, as it turns out, convert dreams into digital imagery—the two become obsessed by the potential of reading their unconscious mind’s nocturnal creations.

The images the device draws, presented in full frame in a few boldly experimental sequences, are multifarious, amorphous, and rapturously beautiful. Digital artifacts and posterizations, as a form of auto-animation, appear to imbue the images themselves with life, even as such imperfections obscure the objects actually depicted. These obscure but teeming visions compel Sam and Claire’s intense engagement, and in what’s perhaps the most clear-sighted prediction of the life in digitized society in a film chock-full of them, Wenders has his two principal characters spend much of the final act staring passively into digital devices, oblivious to the glowing orange-red vistas of the Australian Outback they wander through.

Set in 1999, Until the End of the World predicts with striking accuracy such turn-of-the-millennium devices as digital assistants, search engines, and consumer GPS navigation. The social order in which these objects are embedded also isn’t far off the mark. The film’s first half is a road trip through a globalized world auguring a post-Berlin Wall order that bears more than a passing likeness to our own: East Berlin glows with the neon of renewed capital investment; in the Soviet Union, espionage has been privatized; and San Francisco bears witness to the extreme income disparity wrought by the latter years of the Pax Americana.

The road trip that will end in the dreamland of Australia is kickstarted—though without the urgency the metaphor implies—when Claire turns off a French highway to avoid a traffic jam. This detour eventually brings her into contact with Sam, the trench-coat-clad, fedora-topped fugitive whose air of extralegal mystery and neo-noir cool draws Claire to him well before the film reveals its technological MacGuffin. As Sam, Hurt is a bit stiff, as if, like Claire, he’s unclear exactly who Sam is supposed to be—which works, to a degree, in the film’s first half, as the man has turned himself into a neutral medium, a recording device. It will eventually turn out that Sam has stolen his father’s experimental brain camera to collect images of the world that can now be conveyed directly to the visual cortex of his blind mother (Jeanne Moreau).

Wenders grounds Claire’s sudden and intense attraction to the apparent criminal by having Eugene’s detached voiceover narration describe Claire as flighty and adventurous. Such haphazard characterization is a hallmark of Until the End of the World: Wenders consistently proves less interested in a deep dive into the romantic triangle tying together Claire, Sam, and Eugene than he is in an exploration of the image-saturated milieus of the near future, with their omnipresent screens and glowing neon. He underlines the oneiric artificiality of these millennial environments with an expansive and justly renowned soundtrack—featuring songs by the Talking Heads, R.E.M., Peter Gabriel, and U2—that was more successful than the film itself upon release. That Until the End of the World at times comes off as the world’s longest music video arguably suits its project, as to ‘90s intellectuals there was no aesthetic more symptomatic of the forthcoming descent into visual oblivion as that of MTV.

Like Sam’s project, Until the End of the World is itself a compendium of images, with overt allusions to Jean-Luc Godard, Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujirō Ozu, and, somewhat randomly, Johannes Vermeer. Not to mention Wenders’s own previous films: The director’s use of the road as means of contemplating the gulf between image and experience recalls Alice in the Cities and his American breakout, Paris, Texas. If the meat of the film—the envelopment of the protagonists’ consciousnesses, as well as our own, in the chameleonic digital image, the tempting escape into virtuality—doesn’t come until rather late into the film’s 287-minute running time, it’s because Wenders first sets himself the gargantuan task of summarizing the state of the cinematic image at the moment of its eclipse. His film, well at home with the science fiction of its era, suggests that a shift in our means of apprehending the real is also an alteration of reality—the end, one could somewhat extravagantly claim, of the world itself.

Image/Sound

The new transfer of the film reveals cinematographer Robby Müller’s strikingly bright but deeply hued color palette in all its glory, from the saturated reds of the futuristic Kiev train station, to the lush greens of the Japanese countryside, to the dusty gray of bougie-bohemian Parisian apartment buildings. Wim Wenders, who oversaw the film’s restoration, makes best use of the remastered 5.1 soundtrack during the music sequences, using the more robust mix to create a greater sense of envelopment. By comparison, the film’s environmental sounds and dialogue are mixed flatly, but given how frequently songs appear under scenes, the disc assures an aural experience that’s overall on par with its visual one.

Extras

With this double-disc Blu-ray, Criterion offers an expansive but well-curated selection of extras organized around a few through lines. First, and lending itself to a certain auteur-worshipping romanticism, is the production history of the full Until the End of the World cut, which came in at the current length of 287 minutes. The film’s producers demanded severe edits, forcing Wim Wenders and editor Peter Przygodda to reduce the running time to 158 minutes. Wenders’s efforts to save his original vision are detailed in Bilge Ebiri’s illuminating booklet essay, a prolix title card that runs before the film, and in the filmmaker’s introduction for this Criterion release, as well as in an interview from German television from around the release of the director’s cut to German DVD in 2001.

Then there’s the film’s experimental use of digital video, so we get 1990 special from Japanese television featuring Wenders working on the pioneering digital footage shot for the film in Sony’s Tokyo-based labs. And finally there’s the hit soundtrack, so we get an additional booklet essay by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, adapted from a longer (and highly recommended) piece from The A.V. Club, that celebrates the unabashed hipness of Wenders’s musical taste, and a documentary about the recording of Nick Cave’s “(I’ll Love You) Till the End of the World” that provides fascinating glimpses of Berlin immediately after the fall of the wall. A bit out of place are a series of “deleted scenes” that are really 20 minutes of extended scenes and B roll.

Overall

A film at once hip, quirky, and serious-minded, Until the End of the World remains a hypnotic yet foreboding look at how the proliferation of images and media technology affect the mind.

Cast: William Hurt, Solveig Dommartin, Sam Neill, Max von Sydow, Rüdiger Volger, Ernie Dingo, Jeanne Moreau, Chick Ortega, Elena Smirnova, Eddy Mitchell, Chishu Ryu, Allen Garfield, Lois Chiles, Kuniko Miyake Director: Wim Wenders Screenwriter: Peter Carey, Wim Wenders Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 287 min Rating: R Year: 1991 Release Date: December 17, 2019 Buy: Video

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